“I have a dream”, this refrain, woven through Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington speech embodies the concentrated pain of his (and many) people and the deep longing for a just society.
Although a cry to free America from racial segregation, ostensibly it arouses that which in us seeks a nobler vision for humanity.
We all express that differently.
For some – it is a revolutionary cry. For others it is holding to learned and self-evident truths “that all wo/men are created equal”. It could be a sincere commitment to the Buddhist principles of good in the beginning, good in the middle, good in the end. The detail does not matter so much as the intention and that is progress.
Great leaders embody these ideals. Gifted with the ability to inspire those around them, they make them real. Sometimes romanticised, these leaders evoke the particular: a time, a place, the cause that pushed us forward.
Our histories are crammed with their assorted genius – creative, scientific, thinking. From Galileo to Einstein; Confucius to Descartes; Claudel to Picasso and the courageous agitators like Pankhurst, Parks, Mandela, Kennedy – who said – no that is not good enough – and – no, not good enough yet.
Although contemporary heroes like Jobs, Zuckerbug, Oprah and Huffington are widely recognised, in this age of specialisation, many are admired only among peers: Chris Anderson, Tomas Tranströmer, Nobel laureates like Perlmutter, Schmidt & Reiss.
What these wo/men have in common is a sense of purpose, a guiding principle that determines how they spend their energy, their time.
They don’t seek permission to be who they are or yearn for the deafening screech of consensus. They strike out at the edges, often against all odds, establishing new boundaries that, ironically, often become the future norm.
Their iconic status is their strength and undoing. Because they are great, we ask them to be perfect. This is impossible and unfair. It also keeps us safe by allowing us to point (as the pedestal falls): if s/he could not manage, then how could I?
We need to see our leaders clearly – people – flawed and contradicted as we are. That way, when we are moved by what they have done, we can stand up and wonder: maybe I can too, in my own way. If s/he can do it, so can I.
Nor are they deterred by the complexity of what they set out to achieve.
Martin Luther King Jr understood that enshrining rights was only the first step on a long and difficult path. Einstein abandoned those aspects of his work that proved inconsistent with the very physics to which his theories gave birth. He knew the work was never done. That it never will be. As King said: progress is precarious, and the solution to one problem brings us face to face with another problem. No less than for us in the day to day.
The fortitude and fallibility of those who have changed the world should motivate us to do the same. Their lesson is to live a meaningful life. Their legacy, to show that it can be done. Their humanity, to reassure us.
To live an authentic life you need to know why you are here, what you stand for. That leads to personal happiness and also helps you contribute to the world. You do not have to be a cultural icon, which is a relief for those of us who are so tired we struggle to hang out the washing at the end of the day.
Your dream does not have to be big, but it has to be meaningful – to you. You need to do the work of finding out what it is.
What drives you? Is it integrity, equality, creating more beauty in the world? If so, write down 10 things you could do that would create that and then do one thing every day.
Do not think it is too banal to be worthy. As Mother Theresa said, “be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.”
If you struggle to know what your purpose is, then dig a little into your daydreams. What would you love to accomplish if there were no barriers in terms of talent or resources and why? Would you drive legislative change for equal pay? Perhaps that’s because you believe that the work of both genders should be valued? Ask yourself – do you value your own work? If so, what can you do to show someone else you value their contribution? If not, start to value what you do. Dreams are built on the foundation of personal action.
Is nurturing your thing? If so – bring it to mind before you act, before you speak. Ask yourself – is this thing I am about to share nurturing? Are you nurturing yourself in equal portions to others? If not, you will dry up and be of little good to anyone.
A single but authentic guiding principle can bring enormous focus and meaning to life – provided we evoke it consciously – again and again.
Dream big or small, but have a dream.